THURS: Senate Panel Backs Haaland For Interior Post, Chile Crop Production Up In 2020, + More

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Senate Energy Panel Backs Haaland For Interior SecretaryBy Matthew Daly, Associated Press

A key Senate committee on Thursday approved the nomination of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to be interior secretary, clearing the way for a Senate vote that is likely to make her the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Haaland’s nomination, 11-9, sending it to the Senate floor. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the lone Republican to support Haaland, who won unanimous backing from committee Democrats.

Murkowski, a former chair of the committee, said she had “some real misgivings” about Haaland, because of her support for policies that Murkowski said could impede Alaska’s reliance on oil and other fossil fuels. But the senator said she would place her “trust” in Haaland’s word that she would work with her and other Alaskans to support the state.

Her vote comes with a warning, Murkowski added: She expects Haaland “will be true to her word” to help Alaska. Haaland was not in the committee room, but Murkowski addressed her directly, saying, “I will hold you to your commitments.”

“Quite honestly,” Murkowski added, “we need you to be a success.”

Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Maria Cantwell of Washington state both called the committee vote historic, and both said they were disappointed at the anti-Haaland rhetoric used by several Republicans. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the panel’s top Republican, and other GOP senators have repeatedly called Haaland’s views “radical” and extreme.

Heinrich said he voted for two interior secretaries nominated by former President Donald Trump “whose views (in support of expanded drilling and other resource extraction) may have been considered quite radical by many of my constituents.” Still, he never used that word to describe them, Heinrich said.

Heinrich, who lives in Haaland’s district, said she “always has an open door and an open mind” to a range of views.

The committee vote follows an announcement Wednesday by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that she will support Haaland in the full Senate. Her vote, along with Murkowski’s, makes Haaland’s confirmation by the Senate nearly certain.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Joe Manchin, announced his support for Haaland last week. Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, said Thursday that he does not agree with Haaland on a variety of issues, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but was impressed by the strong endorsement by Alaska Rep. Don Young, a conservative Republican who is the longest-serving member of the House and has forged a strong working relationship with the liberal Haaland.

As a former governor, Manchin also said he knows how important it is for a president to have his “team on board” in the Cabinet.

“It is long past time to give a Native American woman a seat at the Cabinet table,” he said. Interior oversees the nation’s public lands and waters and leads relations with nearly 600 federally recognized tribes.

Barrasso, who has led opposition to Haaland, said her hostility to fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other issues made her unfit to serve in a position in which she will oversee energy development on vast swaths of federal lands, mostly in the West, as well as offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

Barrasso said a moratorium imposed by Biden on oil and gas leases on federal lands “is taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.” The moratorium, which Haaland supports, could cost thousands of jobs in the West, Barrasso said.

New Mexico Governor’s Grocery Bills Prompt Calls For AuditAssociated Press

Senate Republicans on Thursday asked for a special audit of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s use of a discretionary fund following reports that the Democrat spent thousands of dollars on liquor and groceries while holding small in-person meetings at the governor’s mansion amid the pandemic.

Fourteen GOP lawmakers signed the letter that was sent to the state auditor’s office seeking a review of the fund, which has been used for decades by governors to pay for dinners, gifts for protocol meetings or spending on gestures of congratulations or condolences.

“The law makes is clear that this fund is not for the governor’s personal entertainment,” Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said in a statement. “Taxpayers should not foot the bill for the governor’s alcohol, Wagyu beef and dry cleaning. These clearly fall outside the allowable expenditures for this fund.”

Lujan Grisham’s office did not have an immediate comment about the request for an audit.

The first-term governor recently acknowledged that spending on goods and services such as dry cleaning, tuna steaks and tequila over a six-month period in 2020 didn’t look good. The governor’s office said previously that some of the groceries were used to feed her cabinet and staff during long meetings last year.

Groceries were also purchased for the governor to cook and bake holiday gifts and the bottles of alcohol were meant for a party that never happened, her office has said.

The receipts also showed several charges for dry cleaning, which was for the governor’s clothes for news conferences and other remote meetings.

“We’re talking about $13,000 (in total contingency fund spending) in a budget of $7 billion,” Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki recently told The Santa Fe New Mexican. “It’s absolutely the public’s right and obligation to scrutinize the spending of public dollars, but I think that context is important.”

State lawmakers approved a bill in 2018 that changed the way the money is distributed and overseen after former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez used discretionary funds to throw a raucous holiday party at a Santa Fe hotel that involved the police.

Spending from the fund increased during Martinez’s final year in office to about $64,000, up from just over $58,000 the previous year, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

Under former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, annual spending from the fund climbed to $139,000 — the tally for 2008 when food and drink accounted for $60,000. During his two terms, the governor’s mansion played host to events involving film stars, foreign dignitaries, community groups and nonprofit organizations.

New Mexico Business Group Worried About Oil, Gas MoratoriumBy Hannah Grover Farmington Daily Times

The San Juan Basin has gone through booms and busts before, but Jamie Church, the president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce, said a federal moratorium on new oil and gas leases and on permitting would be different than any bust the region has seen in the past.

Church sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on behalf of the chamber asking the governor to speak up against a moratorium instituted by President Joe Biden.

Church told the Farmington Daily Times that there were some operations planned for the basin that needed to go through permitting, but a 60-day moratorium on permitting led them to pursue options in Texas instead. Texas has significantly less federal land, which is the kind impacted by the moratoriums.

Church said past busts haven’t been accompanied by the same political movement away from fossil fuels. As an example, she highlighted the Energy Transition Act that was passed in 2019 to increase renewable portfolio standards and provide a mechanism to refinance past investments in coal-fired power plants as utilities exit their ownership in those plants.

“The whole outlook on the national level is changing,” Church said.

Proponents of these actions highlight the changing climate, which is leading to increased drought and wildfires as well as extreme weather. They say these actions are necessary to reduce emissions and reduce some of the impacts of climate change. The moratoriums will also give the federal government an opportunity to review existing leasing and permitting processes.

Church said the actions could destroy Farmington’s economy by taking away one of the major economic sectors when there is nothing that can replace it.

2020 Marks Increase For Hot Pepper Production In New MexicoBy Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

For chiles, 2020 wasn’t all bad as New Mexico farmers reported increased production and yield levels for the state’s most famous crop.

Numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s statistics service show 68,000 tons of red and green chile were produced in 2020. That’s an 8% increase over the previous year.

The crop’s value also increased to nearly $52 million. Growers had reported labor shortages and reduced demand last year due to the pandemic.

State Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte says the positive numbers are a testament to New Mexico’s farmers. He said the crop forms the basis of salsas, sauces and other valuable products.

The 2020 crop was helped by a mild growing season that was warm and dry — just what chile plants like.

Joram Robbs, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association, said the tonnage and yield increases can be attributed to technological advancements that include better genetics.

But there are still challenges on the horizon, including decreased demand as the restaurant industry has yet to recover. Robbs said some processors and distributors have reported up to a 40% decrease in sales that normally would have been sold to restaurants.

Then there are systemic labor issues that started before the pandemic and are expected to continue into the future.

“It is hard to find people that want to work in this industry anymore and it’s not about the wages they receive,” Robbs said. “Most of the pickers are making well over minimum wage, but people are moving away from wanting to work on a farm or in a processing facility.”

He said increased costs and regulations also are worrying farmers this year along with predictions from forecasters that New Mexico and much of the Southwest could be in for above-average warm and dry conditions. Water managers along the Rio Grande and Pecos River already have warned farmers that this year’s irrigation allotments will be among historic lows due to less snowpack.

Foreign competition is yet another factor, Robbs said.

“Imported chile can be sold for much less than chile grown in New Mexico and as costs and regulations increase in the state, many farmers will not be able to compete,” he said.

The latest data shows nearly 80% of the 2020 crop was sold for processing, with the remaining going to the fresh market.

New Mexico Weighs Options For Teacher Vaccination Mandate – By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Top health officials in New Mexico say the U.S. government needs to boost vaccine supplies if it wants the state to meet a new mandate for getting at least one shot into the arms of all teachers by the end of March.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said during a briefing Wednesday that the state already has vaccinated more than 15,000 educators. With demand still outpacing supplies, the state is in talks with the White House about how to roll out the initiative.

Teachers are next in line under New Mexico’s phased-in approach. But health officials have been reluctant to offer a timeline given the limited supplies.

Many New Mexico school districts have opted not to dramatically increase in-person learning despite approval from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Some have opened on a limited basis, allowing students to attend in-person based on the availability of teachers who volunteer.

Citing the limiting factor of vaccine supply, Lujan Grisham said in a statement that she was hopeful Biden’s directive was an indication that the federal government would be sending more support to the states to get schools opened safely on a faster timeline.

New Mexico is leading the nation when it comes to the percentage of vaccine doses used, having administered more than 94% of its doses. It’s the second-fastest state for administration with nearly one-quarter of residents partially vaccinated and nearly 13% fully vaccinated.

In all, more than 609,000 doses have been administered, and the state has the capacity to distribute more than 50,000 doses per week.

The state this week received more than 17,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved one-shot vaccine. Those were targeted to 10 counties that have so far had low vaccination coverage, state officials said.

According to the state’s data, vaccinations now account for lowering the incidence of new COVID-19 infections by about 50%. That’s up from about 30% just days ago, but state officials stressed that public health restrictions such as mask-wearing and social distancing are still a necessary part of the equation.

State officials described steep declines in new confirmed infections, hospitalizations and deaths because of the virus. Still, they said they are monitoring variants and stressed the importance of testing as a way to keep tracking the virus.

APS To Begin Hybrid Learning Once County Reaches Green Risk LevelAlbuquerque Journal, KUNM News

The Albuquerque Public Schools will begin optional hybrid learning when the district’s county enters the state’s green level for COVID-19 risk and restrictions.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the APS Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to allow students to return to classrooms in-person two days a week if Bernalillo County’s meets certain benchmarks for virus spread.

According the state Department of Health, counties in the “green” have a two-week average of eight or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and a test positivity rate of 5% or less. Bernalillo County is currently in the “yellow,” having met one of the two criteria. 

The board last month voted not to begin hybrid learning for all students and instead allow limited in-person small groups for students with particularly high needs, leaning on teachers who volunteered to return to school buildings.

The newly approved plan will allow teachers one week to prepare for hybrid in-person classes once the county meets the green-level criteria. Students would return to classrooms the next week. Families will have the option to keep their kids fully remote if preferred.

Under the APS hybrid plan, half of a school’s student body will attend class in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the other half coming in on Thursdays and Fridays. All students would be remote on Wednesdays.

The Journal reports Interim Superintendent Scott Elder says Bernalillo County will need to reach the green level before May 1 for schools to have enough time to implement the plan this semester.

Insurance Regulator To Issue Warning On Virus-Test BillingBy Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico’s top insurance regulator is putting medical providers on notice that people cannot be charged for coronavirus testing after reports that residents have been required to pay for coronavirus rapid-result tests. 

Insurance Superintendent Russell Toal said Wednesday that his office is preparing an administrative bulletin to ensure testing costs are not passed directly on to consumers as state health officials push for robust testing to track infection rates and new strains of COVID-19. 

Toal says the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance has received reports of people being charged in excess of $100 for testing services that should be free. The extent of the improper billing is unclear.

“We’ve got some providers out there that are charging individuals for so-called rapid tests,” Toal said. “The new guidance from the federal government makes it really clear that those federal tests are to be covered without a charge to the patient.”

The Biden administration in February issued guidance on 2020 emergency pandemic legislation that restricts cost-sharing with patients for coronavirus testing under a broad range of circumstances.

New Mexico officials this week described steep declines in new confirmed infections, hospitalizations and deaths because of the virus. 

Still, state Human Services Secretary David Scrase said they are monitoring variants and stressed the importance of testing as a way to keep tracking the virus.

The seven-day rolling average for tests administered is hovering around 11,800 — well above a benchmark of 5,000 per day set by the state for re-opening the economy.

New Mexico Governor Signs Pandemic Relief Bills – By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed economic relief legislation that provides $600 rebates to low-income workers and a tax holiday for restaurants that have been hobbled by aggressive pandemic health restrictions.

Lujan Grisham on Wednesday signed two bills that are part of an ambitious economic recovery package.

New Mexico state finances and trust funds are rebounding amid a surge in oil production and prices, along with a boost from 2020 federal relief to state and local government, businesses, the unemployed, school districts and tribal governments.

“This pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but the pain has been spread unequally,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “My hope is these economic relief efforts reach those who need them most.”

States including New Mexico are not waiting on more federal help as they approve coronavirus aid packages for residents and business owners devastated by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

A newly signed bill from Democratic Sens. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City provides a four-month holiday from gross receipts taxes on sales and business services for business operators at restaurants, bars, food trucks, small breweries, wineries and craft distilleries. Instruction for claiming the tax benefit will be distributed later by state taxation officials.

The bill’s break for low-income workers applies to 200,000 people who typically claim the state’s working families tax credit for individuals earning $31,200 and joint filers who earn up to $39,000. It applies to 2020 filings for personal income tax with the Taxation and Revenue Department.

The state will forgo an estimated $200 million in general fund revenue. Local governments are reimbursed for lost tax income.

The second bill from Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque expands an emergency loan program for businesses that lost income after the pandemic hit in 2020.

It would authorize loans of up to $150,000 to small businesses at sub-prime rates of less than 2% annual interest with a payback term of up to 10 years.

Those terms are more generous to borrowers than the original relief program that provided $40.5 million in loans last year. Prior relief loans can be refinanced under the new terms.

The New Mexico Finance Authority can tap up to $460 million from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund to fulfill loan requests.

New Mexico Corrections Officer Sues Over Vaccination Mandate By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A corrections officer is suing a New Mexico county over a requirement that first responders and other Doña Ana County employees be vaccinated.

Isaac Legaretta says in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court that forcing employees to take vaccines that aren’t yet fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration violates federal law.

Legaretta is facing termination for declining a vaccination. His attorney is seeking an injunction to keep the county from firing or disciplining the officer before a ruling is issued.

County officials are defending the policy, saying it’s aimed at ensuring a safe workplace and protecting inmates.

Doña Ana County is among the few spots in New Mexico considered high-risk as spread rates and new per-capita cases continue to be above targets set by the state Health Department.

New Mexico health officials said Tuesday they were not aware of any other counties or municipal governments that were requiring first responders or other employees to be vaccinated at this point.

Top officials with the state’s largest health care providers also said since the vaccination campaign began months ago that they would not force their workers to get the shots given the emergency use status.

None of the vaccine makers with emergency authorization in the U.S. has applied for full approval yet.

Employers have been contacting attorneys and human resources consultants  as they try to figure out how to handle vaccinations.

New Mexico Legislature Seeks Reforms To Spur Internet Access By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico legislators are advancing bills that would modernize efforts to expand access to high-speed internet service as online schooling during the pandemic exposes infrastructure gaps.

The state Senate on Wednesday endorsed a bill that creates a centralized office for broadband internet access. Outside of New Mexico’s metro areas, internet access can be slow, expensive, or simply not available.

Proposals from House and Senate lawmakers would set up a centralized clearinghouse within state government for improving internet access — following the example of many other states that address broadband internet through one agency.

Currently, that crucial infrastructure work in New Mexico is assigned to corners of seven state agencies, ranging from a three-person team at the Department of Information Technology to staff at the Public Education Department.

Responsibilities run the gamut from digging trenches to wiring school libraries in Native American communities.

A bill in the House would formalize that three-person team inside the Department of Information Technology, elevating it to a full-blown division with almost $1 million in funding and the authority to coordinate digging with other state and local agencies, schools, and private companies to avoid overlapping costs. That bill was scheduled for a House floor vote as early as Wednesday.

The state Senate on Wednesday endorsed a similar bill for a centralized broadband division within the Information Technology Department that does not include a spending allocation.

Collins To Back Haaland For Interior, Sealing Her Approval – By Matthew Daly, Associated Press

Maine Sen. Susan Collins says she will support New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to be Interior secretary.

Collins is the first Republican senator to publicly back Haaland, who’s set to become the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

The announcement Wednesday makes Haaland’s confirmation by the Senate nearly certain and follows Haaland’s endorsement last week by Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Collins says she differs with Haaland on several issues but appreciates her role in helping to lead House passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, a landmark conservation law that Collins co-sponsored.

Interior oversees the nation’s public lands and waters and leads relations with nearly 600 federally recognized tribes.

The Senate energy panel is set to vote on Haaland’s nomination Thursday. Several Republicans, including Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top GOP senator on energy, oppose Haaland, saying her opposition to fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other issues made her unfit to serve in a role in which she will oversee energy development on vast swaths of federal lands, mostly in the West, as well as offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

Barrasso said a moratorium imposed by Biden on oil and gas leases on federal lands “is taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.”

Barrasso said the moratorium, which Haaland supports, could cost thousands of jobs in West.

Navajo Nation Reports 20 New COVID-19 Cases, 3 More Deaths Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 20 new COVID-19 cases with three additional deaths.

The latest figures from tribal health officials bring the total number of COVID-19 cases to 29,794 cases since the pandemic began. The death toll now is 1,187.

Health facilities on the reservation and in border towns are conducting drive-thru vaccine events or administering doses by appointment.

The Navajo-area Indian Health Service has vaccinated more than 135,000 people so far. A daily curfew from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. and a mask mandate remain in effect for residents of the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to prevent the spread of the virus.

Tribal health officials say more than 16,000 people have recovered from COVID-19.

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